In this exclusive interview, Duncan Ollerenshaw, who plays Toole on AMC’s Hell on Wheels, reveals his favorite moment from Season 2 and why he feels his character arc has come full circle.
Q: Toole was shot in Season 1. What did you think when you found out he would be returning — and as a changed man, at that?
A: I knew he had been sitting out in the sun for days and was delirious with loss of blood, and so, for me, whether that change would stick or not, I did not know. That’s a good place to work from as an actor because you play the moment with the greatest sincerity and truth that you are a changed man, but knowing human nature, you know that it could go any way.
Q: Which side of Toole is more enjoyable to play, the bully or the heartbroken husband?
A: One of the great things that they gave my character in Season 2 was heart… It’s always fun to play the bad guy or the character the audience will dislike. But as an actor, I have more of an affinity with the tender side of Toole. I would hope that I’m more like him than the nasty bigot. [Laughs]
Q: Were you surprised by your character’s decision to care for Eva’s baby as his own?
A: Toole recognizes that he loves Eva enough to make that big choice. So he does so out of love for Eva more so than a recognition of how it’s really going to affect himself. He’s not really thinking that far forward… One of the most beautiful moments for me to play in this season’s arc is when Toole puts his hand on her belly… [He's realizing that] it’s not fair to punish that child for its circumstance.
Q: Toole ultimately takes his own life. What was your reaction when you found out?
A: My feeling in reading it was that it was the right way for Mr. Toole to go. What’s interesting for me is…it’s an instantaneous decision and if he’d waited ten seconds, he might not make the same choice. But he’s so overwhelmed by not being able to live with the pain, so he makes the choice to end the pain and not take it out on someone else. So that’s where his character arc really comes full circle.
Q: The scene is upsetting to watch. How did you get into the right frame of mind to film it?
A: You just really have to take yourself to a place that approximates that size and importance of a choice. You also know that this is the end of me on this television show, so you’re trying to put that out of your mind and give the scene it’s full worth. But you’re not actually playing the intensity of “I’m going to kill myself” for very long. It happens in a split second.
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Q: Was the bridge collapse scene as scary to shoot as it was to watch?
A: It’s amazing because a scene like that takes about thirty seconds to shoot in its entirety, but because they have all those cameras running, they were able to get all of that footage… All the shots surrounding me are shot at a different time. During the actual collapse, I was sitting watching from the sidelines.
Q: You got to do a bit of stunt work for the big fight scene with the scab workers…
A: I really enjoyed being part of that. It was more staged fight and combat stuff, which I’ve done before. It feels so epic and you feel so in the moment because there’s so much action and activity around you. It just feels real. It feels like you’re there. What’s so great about working on Hell on Wheels is…that it’s pretty easy to take that little extra step as an actor to go, “Yeah, I’m actually here.”
Q: You told us last year that you fossil hunt in your spare time. Have you ever found anything quite as dramatic as the Swede’s sabertooth skull?
A: That would be an extraordinary find. I’ve found a tooth. It’s from an Albertosaurus which is like a T-Rex in miniature, but still, it’s a two-and-a-half-inch-long tooth and those are pretty hard to find. The thing is, a skull like [The Swede's] would be embedded in clay and have fractures. To find a complete skull that you could just simply pull out of the ground is actually not very realistic…[Laughs] But it makes for great TV.